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Israeli Drama ‘Fauda’ Draws Viewers From Across the Political Spectrum

When season 1 of “Fauda” (“Chaos” in Arabic) premiered in Israel in 2015 on the country’s satellite channel Yes, Lior Raz and Avi Issacharoff, creators of the political nail-biter (Raz also stars in the series), were hardly expecting the resulting fanfare. Critics would write about it, they figured, but nobody would actually like the show. After all, this was a TV series in which an elite undercover operative unit in the Israeli army infiltrates the West Bank to catch a Palestinian terrorist. Palestinians are shown doing unconscionably horrible things — but so are Israelis. If anything, they anticipated that Israeli audiences, vociferously divided on myriad political and cultural fronts, would hate the show with an unbridled passion.

“We expected we’d be slaughtered, that we’d be butchered by critics, by the left-wingers, the right-wingers, everyone,” says Issacharoff. “The morning after [we premiered], we opened up the newspapers and both of us were shocked. The left-wing newspapers, the right-wing newspapers — everyone was glorifying it. One of the TV critics wrote, ‘This is the best thing on TV right now, not just in Israel, but all over.’”

Outside Israel, critics were equally dazzled. In The New Yorker, David Remnick penned a glowing review, writing, “‘Fauda’ aims to provide a complex portrait of both the unit and life in the occupied territories.” Mike Hale of The New York Times wrote that “‘Fauda’ is also a family drama, in a way that American thrillers can’t really duplicate. The opposing sides live in such close quarters, and with so much shared history, that wives, children, cousins and girlfriends get caught up in the danger in believable ways, without the manufactured plot twists American dramas employ to put family members in jeopardy.”

So the stakes couldn’t have been higher going into the second season, which drops on Netflix May 24 amid escalating tensions between Israel and Palestine, having already aired in Israel, where it debuted Dec. 31. It did not disappoint. New Year’s Eve on the Gregorian calendar is generally celebrated in Israel with less gusto than in other parts of the world, and more people were gathered around the TV to watch “Fauda” than to see a ball drop in Times Square. The show went on to sweep the 2018 Ophir Awards (the Israeli version of the Emmys and Oscars rolled into one) with a record-breaking 11 wins.

Raz can no longer walk down the streets of Tel Aviv without screaming fans clamoring for a selfie. (He readily obliges, he says, because he remembers what it was like to be a young boy angling for an autograph from one of his favorite Israeli soccer stars.) “It was explosive,” says Issacharoff of “Fauda’s” Season 2 response. “A giant hit.”

From the beginning, the goal of the series was to fully explore a complicated story without bias or prejudice — and that’s exactly what audiences have responded to. “These days in Israel, in the Palestinian territories, you don’t know the other side, you don’t want to hear about the other side. It makes people very uncomfortable,” says Issacharoff. “We force people to sit and have a look at what’s going on. We’re not Palestinians, and we cannot draw the Palestinian narrative, but we did try to bring it [to the fore].”

That’s a perspective that hasn’t often been portrayed on television with any measure of accuracy. “In the TV industry in Israel, nobody shows the Palestinian side,” adds Raz. “We really wanted to open a window. We didn’t intend to do this, of course, but at the end of the day, the left wing thought it was a left-wing show, the right wing thought it was a right-wing show and the Palestinians thought it was a Palestinian show.”

As for their personal politics, Raz and Issacharoff don’t let their opinions about the Israeli-Palestinian crisis drive their creative vision. They have certain leanings (what Israeli doesn’t?), and those inevitably inform the ways in which they conduct their everyday lives, but the ideologies remain separate from the TV series they’ve hatched.

“The show is not created according to what I believe in,” says Issacharoff. “The script always comes first. If we need to torture someone in an episode, we need to torture someone; if we need to kill someone, we need to kill someone. I don’t think about what I believe in when I’m creating and writing the show. Me personally? I am pro two-state. But I don’t think it’s possible right now.”

The pilot was the first thing either Raz or Issacharoff ever wrote: Raz, who is married to Israeli actress Meital Barda, had acted in Israeli series such as “The Gordin Cell” and “Dumb,” and Issacharoff was, and is, a veteran journalist and Middle East analyst. The two had known each other since their teens, hanging out in bars and nightclubs in the trendy Russian Compound neighborhood of Jerusalem, and when they bumped into one another years later at an event just outside Ramallah, they talked about their “dream” of writing a TV series inspired by their respective experiences in the Israeli army — “the special forces undercover units and the prices they are paying for their actions, their families, their friends,” says Raz.

There are only five networks in Israel, and when Raz and Issacharoff first pitched the series, three of them — Keshet, Reshet and Channel 10 — passed. The fourth, Yes, eventually bought the show, but it was anxious about the outcome. “It was a very tough sell,” says Issacharoff. “Yes said yes, but there was a condition: We had to show them six episodes [of scripts] before they would officially agree.”

When Netflix bought “Fauda,” Raz and Issacharoff remained largely outside the negotiating process. Even after the series’ monstrous success in Israel, the two were not entirely convinced it would captivate international audiences.

“At the end of the day, the left wing thought it was a left-wing show, the right wing thought it was a right-wing show and the Palestinians thought it was a Palestinian show.”
Co-creator Lior Raz

“When we sold our show to Netflix, I thought, ‘It’s in Arabic and Hebrew — why would anybody watch?’” says Raz. “It was a big question for me, and I still don’t have an answer.”

“Fauda” challenges perceptions of Israelis and Palestinians, humanizing both.

Raz plays Doron, a hot-tempered counterterrorism operative who steps out of retirement (he’s growing grapes in his vineyard at the series’ start) to hunt down notorious Hamas leader Taofik Hamed, known as “Abu Ahmed,” once thought dead but still very much alive. A married father of two, Doron has an illicit affair with Shirin (French actress Laëtitia Eido), a Palestinian doctor and cousin to Walid El Abed (Shadi Mar’i), the young, eager apprentice to Abu Ahmed (Hisham Suliman). Shirin and Doron have far more sexual chemistry than Doron and his wife, Gali (Neta Garty), who, incidentally, is having her own affair with a member of Doron’s unit.

One of the great strengths of “Fauda” is its no-holds-barred willingness to present complex situations, sparking meaningful dialogue about cultural identity and Middle East politics. Season 2 takes these fiery dynamics to the next level, with even more questions about the ever-persistent Israeli-Palestinian crisis, about land rights, about peoplehood.

When it came to drafting the second set of episodes, Raz and Issacharoff wanted to build on the formula that made the series so popular but knew they’d need to raise the bar to keep things interesting — and relevant. “‘High’ is an understatement of what people expected of us,” says Issacharoff, who admits to being “terrified” of not being able to match the acclaim of Season 1.

“We knew that it cannot be the same bad guy in Hamas,” he says of crafting Season 2. “You need to make someone who is more dangerous, more threatening, more frightening.”

Enter Islamic terrorist El Makdessi (Firas Nassar), son of Sheikh Awadalla, who was blown up in an ill-fated prisoner exchange in Season 1. For El Makdessi, “Hamas is not radical enough,” says Issacharoff. He also has a personal vendetta against Doron, whom he blames for Awadalla’s death. “He’s very much focused on his revenge.”

Lior Raz (foreground) and Doron Ben-David play Israeli army counter-terrorism operatives in “Fauda.”

Season 2 is also more focused on interpersonal relationships and emotional journeys the characters are going through, notes Raz. We dig deeper into the inner lives of the terrorists.
We meet their pregnant wives, their children — agonizing embodiments of both innocence and evil, brainwashed by the time they enter school. We meet the sister of a slain Israeli, drowning her grief in whiskey, and we watch as Israeli undercover operative Nurit (Rona-Lee Shim’on) takes out a Palestinian terrorist with slick precision, her eyes fixed with sharp, singular purpose.

“No matter what the plot, [it’s] always served better the more you focus on the process the characters are going through,” says Issacharoff. “It just makes for a better show.”

We also meet Doron’s father, Amos, played by Igal Naor (“Homeland,” “The Honourable Woman”). Through Amos, we get a deeper sense of what drives Doron and what makes him tick. With Naor’s bald pate, portly stature and gruff paternal quirks, it’s hard to imagine he and Raz are not related in real life.

“We actually based this character on my real father,” says Raz. “He looks like him. They have the same mustache. They both speak Arabic. The have the same words and the same mannerisms. I would watch him try to imitate me — how I throw my cigarette, how I smoke — and he would do the same exact movements as I did. He became like my real father.”

That “Fauda” has turned Raz into a star is no surprise to Issacharoff, who prefers to keep a lower profile. (Raz, for the record, has little interest in celebrity: “The work is more important.”) But what Issacharoff does find “fascinating” is that Arab-Israeli actor Nassar, who plays a ruthless Palestinian terrorist, has become a full-blown sex symbol in Israel.

“The Israeli websites, the newspapers — they are all writing about him: He was seen here, he was seen there, he’s in a coffee shop with some girl,” he says. “It’s ridiculous. It’s amazing.”

But the series has yielded weightier results as well. While “TV can’t bring peace,” says Raz, audiences are experiencing an increased awareness of the complexity of the clash between Israelis and Palestinians, and they are also learning compassion. Because of “Fauda,” Raz points out, many Jews in Israel have begun to learn Arabic.

“If you want to have a dialogue, you need to learn the language,” he says. “I cannot influence anyone, but I think that something has changed inside of people who have watched the show.”

Raz and Issacharoff, who are writing Season 3 of “Fauda” and have two other series set up at Netflix, are extremely careful to note that while they write about political issues, they are not politicians.

“We wrote this TV show to write a good TV show, and not to change the face of the Middle East,” says Issacharoff.

He pauses reflectively and then adds, “Of course, when I think about all that has come to us since the show, I always make sure to say ‘Baruch haShem’ and ‘AlHamdulillah’ [Praise be God] in both Hebrew and Arabic, so that no one thinks the show is pro-Palestinian or pro-Israel.”

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